By Alexander Korolev
A comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Russia is something that has not been taken seriously in the post-Cold War Western academic and “think tank” communities. While it was implicitly recognised that a potential alignment between the two Eurasian great powers may have tremendous geopolitical ramifications and the potential to transform the existing international order in the most fundamental of ways, the materialisation of such a scenario has constantly been viewed as baseless, insignificant, or ephemeral.
Experts of different stripes have been good at listing various potential pitfalls that are supposed to undermine any real progress in China-Russia strategic cooperation. Some argued that Russia was anxious over China’s conventional military superiority, and would, therefore, resist aligning militarily with China. Others believed that a closer China-Russia alignment would mean for Russia semi-colonial status vis-à-vis China, to the extent that China might decide to take over the sparsely populated Siberia and the Far East.
Some emphasised that Russia’s growing dependence on China is at odds with Russia’s ambitions of being a significant international player and this, therefore, should prevent a China-Russia entente. Others viewed China-Russia regional disagreements as undermining the two countries’ relations and revealing their unreliability. Still, others emphasised that “Sino-Russian relations lack trust and are characterised by competition, especially in the two countries’ shared regions.” Russia, some believed, “neither trusts anyone nor is it trusted by anyone, in Asia.”
All these aforementioned assessments have been falsified by the actual pattern of the post-Cold war China-Russia relations, especially since 2012. Indeed, in the context of expanding and deepening strategic cooperation between China and Russia, the persistent scepticism of some assessments creates the impression that the analysts’ arms were twisted to land their analysis at conclusions that deliberately belittle the China-Russia partnership.
In fact, Moscow and Beijing have within the two-and-a-half decades since the end of the Cold War progressed from a relationship of “good-neighborliness” to “constructive cooperation,” and then to “comprehensive strategic partnership” and further on to “comprehensive strategic partnership and coordination.”
Siberia was not and will not be occupied by the Chinese, nor did Central Asia become an arena of China-Russia competition. Rather, the two countries sought to achieve an understanding in the region and signed on May 8, 2015, a Joint Statement that links China’s Silk Road Economic Belt with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Russia is apparently willing to accept China’s greater role in the “post-Soviet space.” Moreover, with the only exception of some marginalised groups in the Russian expert and political community, Russia does not perceive China to be a major threat. In fact, the United States is viewed as the imminent existential threat.
According to the Deputy Director of Moscow’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Vladimir Portyakov, “at present, any unprejudiced person is much more aware than before that, today and tomorrow, Russia faces a much bigger, more dangerous and more real threat from the West than a hypothetical threat from a rising China in the day after tomorrow.” As evidenced by multiple China-Russia official joint declarations, and reports on the meetings of the Chinese and Russian Ministers of Defense, China largely shares Russia’s perception of global threats, especially after the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” in Hong Kong, and, like Russia, prefers to see a more multipolar world.
In this context, China-Russia military cooperation has progressed immensely over the last two decades, and has recently grown into a multi-level institutionalized system of contacts among almost all major government agencies and organizations, including top decision makers and their administrative apparatuses, Defense Ministries and their subdivisions, regional military districts and border garrisons, as well as military educational institutions. Since 1992, China and Russia have every 3 to 4 years launched a new consultation mechanism or enhanced the existing mechanisms.
Simultaneously, the frequency of contacts within some existing mechanisms has been increasing. Today, all of the existing mechanisms combined generate a frequency of 20 to 30 high-level security-related consultations per year; this number excludes the entire body of regional cooperation formats occurring between provinces and cities, educational exchanges, military exercises, and other regular contacts. All of them have been operating consistently since the date of establishment, and none of them has ceased to function. China has arguably only one state, in addition to Russia, with which it has military interactions of comparable depth and comprehension — Pakistan.
The breadth and depth of China-Russia bilateral security consultations continue to grow. The case in point is the “China-Russia Northeast Asia Security Dialogue” — a new platform for regional security consultations, launched in April 2015 in response to the US decision to launch the THAAD missile shield in South Korea, and aimed at creating security mechanisms in Northeast Asia. Talking about the aforementioned “lack of trust” argument, there is the China-Russia “Consultation on the National Security Issues” — China’s only mechanism of consultations on its national security with a foreign state.
China and Russia have also achieved remarkable progress in terms of military-technical cooperation (MTC). According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “We can now even talk about the emerging technological alliance between the two countries.” Importantly, Russia’s attitude toward comprehensive MTC with China is changing and the cautiousness about relying on China in this area is disappearing. According to Russia’s leading expert on China-Russia MTC, Vasili Kashin, Russia’s previous constraints in its MTC with China, caused by political considerations, have now disappeared. China-Russia MTC has become a reciprocal “two-way street,” and even if Russia-West political relations stabilise at some point, Russia has already passed the “point of no return” in its MTC with China.
The geographic span of China-Russia joint military exercises has expanded into new regions. In this regard, the year 2015 was a geopolitical game changer, when China-Russia joint naval exercises — “Joint Sea-2015” — took place in the Mediterranean, considered the heart of NATO. In turn, “Joint Sea-2016,” which took place on September 12-19, 2016, became the first major exercise of its kind involving China and a second country in the disputed South China Sea after The Hague-based tribunal overruled China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claims. Although both China and Russia rushed to announce that the drills did not target any third party, given the international context, “Joint Sea-2016” sent a strong signal to the rest of the world. Most recently, the two countries have launched new types of smaller-scale military exercises, such as ballistic missile defence simulation exercises and regular exercises for internal security troops involving Russia’s National Guards and China’s police units.
Contrary to the dominant views that picture the China-Russia strategic partnership as shaky and unsustainable, the two countries have been consolidating their relations steadily and consistently over the last two decades. By now, they have created strong institutional foundations, and only minor steps are necessary for a formal and functioning military alliance to materialise. Even though the occurrence of such steps is not yet guaranteed, these final steps are no longer a matter of capabilities but rather of final intentions.
The writer is a research fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
The piece was originally published on The IPP Review.